Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness, which screened at IFFI, is an 'eye for an eye' drama set in a TV studio

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness was screened at the International Film Festival of India.

Baradwaj Rangan January 23, 2021 17:51:43 IST
Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness, which screened at IFFI, is an 'eye for an eye' drama set in a TV studio

Still from Yalda, A Night For Forgiveness. Facebook

The International Film Festival of India went virtual this year. One of the films I watched is Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (2019). It’s a tale of conflict, and the conflict arises from the very title.

The first word refers to the winter solstice festival in Iran. It is a celebration, a day of joy. The last word of the title, however, refers to the fate of Maryam (Sadaf Asgari), a young woman who killed her much-older husband. She says it was an accident. But she fled the scene, so the evidence stacked up heavily against her. She has spent months in prison.

The other major character in this story is Mona (Behnaz Jafari), the daughter of the dead man (through his first wife). She is older than Maryam, too. The two women have been called into a television studio for a special programme where they will be seated opposite one another, with an anchor probing them to hear both sides of the story. If Mona forgives Maryam, the latter will not be executed — though, Maryam, frankly, does not seem to care. After her child was stillborn, she says she died anyway.

The women are perfectly cast. Asgari has the soft looks of a lost little girl. Just looking at her, we feel sorry for Maryam. (The mind says: Can someone who looks like this be a killer?) Jafari, on the other hand, has a longer face, more chiselled features. She radiates imperiousness, the sense of having unlimited power. (Now, this woman looks like she could kill.) Even while sitting across each other in the show, their postures are indicative of the power imbalance. Maryam is hunched over in her chair, her arms clasped between her legs. Mona leans back, and has one leg crossed over the other. She looks every bit in control.

The premise is almost farcical. A matter of life and death is being decided on a reality show (called Joy of Forgiveness), by voters who are asked to text “1” if they believe Maryam should be forgiven, and “2” if they don’t. It’s a garishly lit set, on which performers will sing and recite poems (it is Yalda night, after all!), interrupting the Maryam-Mona “showdown”, so that the whole thing doesn’t turn too “serious”. There are even sponsors who will chip in with the “blood money”, in case Maryam ends up being forgiven and has to compensate Mona for her loss.

Apparently, there is a show along these lines in Iran. The opening scenes make you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh. Maryam is waiting for Mona to arrive — she presumably hasn’t met her “step-daughter” while she was in prison. She probably has things she wants to say face-to-face. But in the meantime, she is whisked away to the makeup room, so she can look nice for the camera. “We make this show to save the lives of people like you,” the show-runner tells her, without a trace of irony.

Massoud Bakhshis Yalda a Night for Forgiveness which screened at IFFI is an eye for an eye drama set in a TV studio

Still from Yalda, a Night For Forgiveness. Facebook

Massoud Bakhshi has said that this isn’t how he originally wanted to stage his story. He didn’t even know such a show existed. In his initial draft, Maryam is in prison. (In this version, we don’t see the prison at all. We just get an image of Maryam in handcuffs, as she enters the studio.) She has learnt that she is pregnant. She is assured that she will not only live to see the baby born, but also be given two years to breastfeed the child. Only then will she be executed.

But when a friend told Bakhshi about the television show (called Honeymoon), he was intrigued. He reworked his script. The resulting film might make some of us think of Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), where a television station exploits the on-air ranting of a just-fired news anchor for ratings. Network is shockingly prescient. Aaron Sorkin, while accepting his Best Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network, said, “no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.”

Bakhshi has said Lumet was definitely an influence on Yalda, where the ratings-hungry media is similarly reliant on (and influenced by) an excitable mob. But it was through another legendary film: 12 Angry Men. Like that 1957 classic, Yalda unfolds mostly in a confined space. At first, the handheld camera follows Maryam. It’s her story. But after a while, the camera begins to follow Mona. This is now her story, too. She wants revenge, an eye for an eye, which the anchor says is her “legal and religious right”.

But is there more? Is she also angry with her father for being exploitative? Maryam was his employee and he pursued her relentlessly, like he’d pursued many others. Only this time, he was hell-bent on marriage: a “temporary marriage”. His wife is away for medical treatment. Islamic law forbids cohabitation without marriage. Hence this convenient solution. Maryam says she kept saying no, but was forced by her family. But slowly, she learnt to love the man she once looked at “like a father”.

Bakhshi’s setting lends this angle of class-exploitation a new shade. In another film, the scenes of Maryam being pursued/wooed might have actually been shown, and we would be able to see what really happened between the two. But because we never leave the television studio (except for the opening and closing, and the mid-section where Mona goes on a drive), we get only Maryam’s words, highly charged words from that lost-little-girl face. Surely, she’s telling the truth! Or is she simply using that face to manipulate an audience of millions into voting for her?

I can’t say the film worked entirely for me: despite the complex underpinnings, it’s a tad too simplistic. But I really enjoyed the way such explosive situations (there are at least two twists!) were treated without an iota of melodrama. Bakhshi is a documentarian, and that’s the no-frills approach he brings to this feature project. Even the neon colours of the set have a function. They are a perfect contrast to the darkness, the sadness inside the hearts of Maryam and Mona. And like in 12 Angry Men, when a tough decision is arrived at, it’s cause for neither celebration nor despair. It just is.

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness was screened at the International Film Festival of India.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date:

Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro at ₹499 for the first year. Use code PRO499. Limited period offer. *T&C apply

also read

The Simpsons bring back Mrs Krabappel in 969th episode as tribute to late Marcia Wallace
Entertainment

The Simpsons bring back Mrs Krabappel in 969th episode as tribute to late Marcia Wallace

The Simpsons' 969th episode features #MarciaWallace's voice as Mrs Krabappel taken from previous instalments of the show.

Sara Ali Khan, Dhanush, Akshay Kumar's AtrangiRe, directed by Aanand L Rai, to release in theatres on 6 August
Entertainment

Sara Ali Khan, Dhanush, Akshay Kumar's AtrangiRe, directed by Aanand L Rai, to release in theatres on 6 August

AtrangiRe, which reunites Dhanush and Aanand L Rai after their 2013 critical hit Raanjhanaa, will feature Akshay Kumar in a "special role."

Ranveer Singh, Kabir Khan's cricket drama 83 will release in theatres on 4 June
Entertainment

Ranveer Singh, Kabir Khan's cricket drama 83 will release in theatres on 4 June

Ranveer Singh announced that 83 would simultaneously release in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.